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Schlock & Awe: KILL, BABY, KILL is the Best Ghost Kid Movie of All Time

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become more and more enamored of the Italian director Mario Bava. Bava began his career as a cinematographer, the son of special effects photographer Eugenio Bava, before graduating to directing (his first film as co-director was Caltiki: The Immortal Monster) and becoming one of the early maestros of Italian horror cinema. I would go so far as to call him the best, though he never reached the popularity of his acolytes like Dario Argento. Thanks to the newly released Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, we can now see in HD what for my money is his crowing achievement, 1966’s Kill, Baby, Kill.

Bava rightfully gets credited for a brilliant thriller that was the antecedent to what would become the giallo, or gory Euro thriller. This was 1964’s Blood and Black Lace, an absolute corker of a movie, but I think Bava was the most at home with Gothic horror, old manner houses covered in mist with ghostly terrors lurking around each corner. Bava, being the photographic genius he was, knew exactly how to light things to make them seem otherworldly and heighten their creepiness. For Kill, Baby, Kill, he shot on location in the real medieval Italian town of Calcata, standing in for Carpathia in the early 1900s, and managed to get this amazing movie shot in just 12 days, for only 50 thousand lira.

In 1907, Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) is sent to a small villain to perform an autopsy on a woman who died mysteriously in a church. The town is incredibly wary of his being there, and prefer to handle such matters themselves. His only ally there seems to be Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli) who called him in the first place, and the beautiful young Monica Schuftan (Erika Blanc), a native of the town who’d moved away when she was a child and only returns now to visit her parents’ graves. The town’s burgomeister (Luciano Catenacci) is clearly hiding something, and nobody in town seems willing to help the investigation in any way.

One night, Dr. Eswai is walking back to the inn where he’s staying and is attacked by men of the town, who would have killed him were it not for the sudden appearance of Ruth (Fabienne Dali), a woman who identifies herself as a sorceress. Naturally Dr. Eswai doesn’t believe in such superstition, but Ruth affirms that horrible things are happening and he’d do best to leave. But when Eswai discovers a coin buried deep in the heart of his autopsy patient, he’s determined to stay.

There IS something evil menacing this little town, and it’s a girl named Melissa Graps (Valerio Valeri). How can a little girl be the cause of so much hardship and death? Simple. She’s been dead for decades, and her ghost hangs on the town like a plague. Everyone lives in fear of saying or doing something that might upset the spectre and lead her to descend on them, urging the poor victim to kill themselves horrifically. The key to everything seems to emanate from Villa Graps, the large estate in the outskirts of town. While Eswai investigates, he’s pulled further and further into the town’s madness, and Monica seems unable to escape some particularly harrowing visions and dreams.

Bava is able to make every frame of this movie feel like a doom-laden nightmare. For 1966, he does several very revolutionary things. The snap-zooms are an Italian genre movie staple, sure, but he uses them with amazing effectiveness and often they heighten a jump scare of Melissa showing up out of nowhere, or realizing she’s been in the show the whole time.

One of the great surrealist dream sequences in the movie involves Eswai running through Villa Graps, trying to chase whom he believes is just a regular ol’ little blonde girl. Nope, she’s a ghost, and turns the large manor into a labyrinth. Eswai runs into a room which has little more than another door at the other end of the room, runs through that to find himself in the same room again, so he runs through the far door again, this time catching a glimpse of the door shutting just ahead of him. He runs faster through the same room time and again and each time he sees a person dressed like himself, he eventually catches up with the person, spins them around, and reveals that it IS indeed him, smiling evilly back at himself. This then culminates in Eswai waking up suddenly to find himself in a giant spider web outside the manor. It’s a sequence that puts Carnival of Souls or David Lynch to shame.

This is easily the best movie in the horror sub genre of the “ghost kid” movie, a movement that includes movies like The Sixth Sense, The Others, and even Bava’s earlier Black Sabbath. I think Kill, Baby, Kill is ahead of them all because Melissa Graps is so unbelievably scary. It might be because the child actor playing Melissa, Valerio Valeri, was not a little girl at all, but actually a little boy. Bava just couldn’t find an actual little girl that scared him as much as this boy with his angry stares, so he slapped a blonde wig on him and put him in a dress and we have a truly terrifying horror villain, who laughs and plays like an innocent kid while causing mayhem.

As I said, the movie comes to us on gorgeous 4K restoration via Kino Lorber, who’ve put out a great many of Bava’s films. This one, like most of the other releases, has an incredibly informative and insightful audio commentary by author and film historian Tim Lucas, whose exhaustive biography of Bava—titled Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark—is what every filmmaker biography ought to be. Lucas relays many fascinating tidbits from the movie’s making, including the production company going broke and not being able to pay anyone, nobody agreeing on what the movie should be called (the American title Kill, Baby, Kill is pretty bad, but the Italian title Operazione paura, or Operation Fear, is even worse), to the fact that the film is one of Bava’s biggest hits, making 210 million lira.

While Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, and Blood and Black Lace are justifiably remembered as Bava’s masterpieces, I think Kill, Baby, Kill is actually the maestro’s best work, turning in a moody, atmospheric, nightmarish, and astoundingly bravura horror film that will put the chill right up the back of you each and every time you watch it. A definite for Halloween watching, or whenever you’re feeling spooky.

Image: Kino Lorber

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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